Skip to main content

Remarks at U.S. Conference of Mayors

Roxbury Community College

As delivered.

Good evening, and thank you for that introduction. I am delighted to be here tonight. I am an admirer of our host, President Roberson, who is working every day at Roxbury Community College to create pathways to opportunity for students from Greater Boston, most of them students of color new to the idea of college and often new to this country. And I am an admirer of our organizer, Mayor Setti Warren, whose career I have followed for many years now, watching from Cambridge, and I see his tenacity and his commitment to tackling big questions and tough problems and that has long impressed me. But, most of all, I am a passionate student of the topic we’re all here to address: Economic Opportunity and Growth for All.

Let me start by sharing my own strong view about this: any discussion about reducing inequality in this country, and creating economic growth that reaches everyone, has to begin with investing in education—from early learning all the way through higher education. It just has to.

Now this is especially true when we think about our fellow citizens most marginalized in today’s economy, underrepresented minorities, the poor, and first-generation Americans. For those students, we know that education isn’t just a boost up, it’s a boost over the wall.

We know that investments in early learning help students arrive at the schoolhouse door better prepared to take advantage of classroom teaching.

We know that investing in great teaching and rigorous curriculum allows more students to graduate from high school ready for the rigors of college. Mayor Fischer, I know Louisville is leading the way in many realms of K-12 improvement, and we are all taking note.

But what I want to talk about today is the unique role that colleges and universities have to play in helping graduates participate fully in our economy, and in life.

I had the opportunity to make this argument about a year ago at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, Texas. I addressed about 500 students from high schools throughout Dallas and made what I called the “Case for College.” Here is what I told them: I believe that college is more important than ever.

There is no doubt that college pays off financially. A wide range of statistics shows the economic advantage of a four-year college education:

Over a lifetime, students who graduate from college can expect to make about 60 percent more than those who do not, well over a million dollars more.

Look at this chart behind me, and I hope you can at least see some of it for those in the back of the room and let’s just focus for a minute on three hypothetical students from Greater Boston. Obviously these are national figures, and median income numbers, but let me just use them as a guide for a moment.

So, let’s call our first student Charles. Charles enters the work force with a high school diploma and can expect that five or six years later—that is if he can find a job, since one out of three young workers without a college degree is unemployed— if he can find that job, he’ll earn about $668 gross each week.

Now, let’s think about Charles’ friend Julio who enrolled here at RCC, and earned an associate’s degree in three years while working part time. A few years into working part time, our hypothetical Julio can then expect to earn $792 a week—$124 more than Charles. What does $124 buy you? A lot. It is a cellphone bill. Two weeks of groceries. A car payment on a used car. It makes a difference.

Now let’s take Charlene. Charlene spends two years here at RCC and then she transfers to UMass Boston, where she spends another three years getting a bachelor’s degree, while waitressing in the evenings. Charlene graduates at 23, she has some debt, and she’s missed out on some earning years. But within a few short years she can expect to make $1,100 a week—nearly $450 more than Charles, and $300 more than Julio. That is a week. With her greater earnings, Charlene can maybe split an apartment with a friend, eat out now and then, maybe join a gym. All contributions to the local economy. She can begin to save for a home. And she has every reason to believe her future job prospects are more secure, and to believe that she’ll advance in both earnings and opportunity faster than her former classmates. What does it mean for you, as mayors and policymakers, to have more Charlenes and fewer Charles contributing to your local economies?

The benefits of having “more Charlenes”—to put it simplistically—are profound for the health of our cities. They are also important drivers of greater economic inclusion and increased equality. College graduates tend to lead more active lives. They vote more often. They volunteer far more often. As early 20th-century civil rights leader Nannie Burroughs put it, education is “democracy’s life insurance.”

College graduates are also more likely to own a home. They are healthier and less likely to smoke. Their children are more likely to go to college, which means that the economic prosperity we hope to seed for future residents of Fresno, and Newton, and Louisville is more likely to take hold.

Now I don’t know a lot about being a mayor, though I have to say Marty Walsh, David Maher from Cambridge, and the late great Tom Menino have been excellent teachers and role models for me. But I do know this: all of you—and mayors across the country—should view the universities in their communities as assets, as infrastructure, and as allies.

We are assets—deployable assets—in your goals to employ more people, educate more people, and create economic conditions that attract the start-ups and the established companies who need knowledge workers to grow.

And universities are infrastructure—the labs and classrooms and dorms and athletic facilities will be forever a part of a city’s landscape, and will be renewed and refreshed with dollars often imported from outside the city. And beyond physical infrastructure, we are intellectual infrastructure—the wellspring of ideas, and solutions, and technologies and patents that will fuel growth, and create new jobs.

And universities are allies. We want the communities we call home to be strong, and safe, and vibrant. For many of the top universities in the country, as well as for the largest community colleges, our homes are cities. Universities and their host cities should link arms and together drive progress, particularly as it relates to the sharing of knowledge that comes from the universities and can be applied to students in K-12. I am extremely proud of our work in both Cambridge and Boston to reach students in the public schools and raise their sights through mentoring, scholarship opportunities, and connecting them to the idea and the possibility of college.

Now I want to say in closing, that while I have never experienced the challenges of being a mayor, university presidents do experience some strikingly similar challenges. We have residents, with their needs and their demands and their expectations of those who lead them. We employ lots of people. We run transportations systems to get those people to where they need to go, and health systems to keep people healthy. We need to remove snow, protect the community, negotiate with unions, and put up buildings. In short, we have to get things done. And in the midst of getting things done—managing the sheer demands of running a large complex community—whether in Fresno, California, or Harvard University—we can often be deprived of the time and energy needed to ask ourselves the big questions: where are we headed? What does the future look like? How do we prepare as institutions, and how do we prepare members of our communities not only to meet the challenges ahead, but to prosper?

And we must seek to remember to ask these questions. And you are here today to consider a very big question. It is arguably one of the most pressing questions of our time. How do we spread the wealth of this country more equitably among its citizens? How do we expand the economy in ways that lift more of us, not just a few of us? I believe that universities can not only help you answer that question, they are themselves an important part of the answer.

Thank you.

I’d now like to welcome Roxbury Community College President Dr. Valerie Roberson. She’s in her third year as president of RCC, and events like tonight are a direct result of her leadership. Please join me in giving Dr. Roberson a warm welcome.